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Spaced out

St Mary Magdalene’s Church in the coastal hamlet of Thumba stands tall among swaying coconut palms. There was a time when devout fishermen prayed there. But the Catholic church is now a symbol of science: it houses a space museum.

It was here in Kerala that India’s space mission took off. The church and its parsonage became space laboratories and offices when the bishop readily agreed to give up the church for science.

“A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (India’s former president) and I were using the bishop’s house in the church complex as our offices,” reminiscences R. Aravamudan, who was the first to be hired by Vikram Sarabhai, father of the Indian space programme. Aravamudan, who later headed several space institutions, was involved in rocket launches carried out from Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, a stone’s throw from the church.

The church — and space scientists across the country — should be in the midst of celebrations, as India marks the 50th year of its space programme. Instead, scientists have been tearing at each other.

In February 1962, India established the Indian National Committee for Space Research, which was reconstituted as the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in 1969. Today, Isro faces the darkest phase of its existence, as a controversy continues to divide scientists.

In the eye of the storm is a deal Isro’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation signed in 2005. It sought to lease 90 per cent of transponders available on two geostationary satellites planned for future launches to a private firm, Devas Multimedia Pvt. Ltd, for multimedia communication across the country.

Last year, the Space Commission, the final authority on matters relating to space research and application, scrapped the deal stating that bandwidth committed is required for strategic applications. Subsequent investigation by two expert committees found procedural flaws. This January, four Isro scientists, including former chief Gopalan Madhavan Nair, were barred from holding any government positions.

That wasn’t the end. Space Commission member and aerospace scientist Roddam Narasimha, who was a part of a two-member committee probing the deal, resigned from the commission in February, saying he couldn’t agree with the punishment. “It was like killing a fly with a sledgehammer,” Narasimha says.

The controversy seems to have taken a toll on the space programme. While Isro’s top echelon insists it won’t impact functioning, the balance sheet tells otherwise. After the scandal, Isro has not utilised one-third of its annual funds. Rs 2,200 crore out of a budgetary allocation of Rs 6,626 crore in 2011-2012 was left untouched.

“I do not think this was because of the controversy alone. The failure of two home-built geostationary rockets in 2010 and the investigations that ensued too pegged back many space projects,” says an Isro scientist who does not want to be named.

Another Isro official, however, believes there were reasons the fund utilisation went haywire. Despite its efforts, Isro couldn’t buy more cryogenic engines (that use fuels stored at very low temperatures) and slots on Arianespace rockets for launching its Insat-series satellites from the French Guiana. Russia had supplied cryogenic engines to India which were used in earlier GSLV (geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle) flights. Isro is now left with just one cryogenic engine but requires many more if it wants to launch GSLV from India.

Two failed GSLV rockets test-fired in April 2010 and December 2010 were a serious setback as the rockets tested indigenously developed cryogenic engines. Mastering the complex cryogenic technology is crucial for India which wants to use engines made in India to launch heavier satellites of 2,500kg or more in the geostationary orbit that is nearly 36,000km above the earth. Another test flight of a GSLV rocket (using a home-grown cryogenic engine) is slated for later this year.

The repeated GSLV failures and phasing out of older satellites have created an acute shortage of transponders used for a variety of applications including telecommunication, broadcasting, telemedicine and tele-education. Isro had earlier set an ambitious target of launching 500 transponders by March 2012. The target was reduced to 215 — but it couldn’t meet that either. Today, Isro has only 168 transponders in orbit, while it has leased 91 transponders from foreign satellites.

In July, Isro plans to launch a satellite with 30 transponders. It also hopes to launch two more, that would provide 48 transponders, the official says. “The performance this year is most important,” says Narasimha, who thinks Isro is resilient enough to bounce back.

Isro watchers across the world agree that India has been able to pitchfork one of the strongest national space programmes on a shoestring budget by judiciously combining knowledge acquired internally and externally. India currently has a fleet of 11 remote sensing satellites and eight communication satellites.

“It was remarkable that India did not follow pioneering countries exploring space, but ran along with them,” stresses Yagnaswami Sundara Rajan, Dr Vikram Sarabhai Distinguished Professor at Isro and chief mentor, Isro Strategy Group. “The success Isro achieved in space is for everyone to see. If that wasn’t the case, other countries would not have approached us for building or launching satellites for them,” he says.

Among the factors that helped Isro accumulate significant capabilities in all spheres of space technology — rockets, satellites and ground systems — was the leadership of Sarabhai. Satish Dhawan, who succeeded him, converted Sarabhai’s ideas into tangible products. The Isro leadership encouraged its scientists to innovate as technology sanctions, particularly from the US, hampered the possibility of buying critical technologies off the shelf.

This, experts say, helped Isro leapfrog technologies. For instance, when the US remote sensing satellites Landsat were using multispectral scanners for taking earth images from space, Indian remote sensing satellites, first launched in the 1980s, boasted of a technology that was revolutionary and still unproven. The satellites used CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras for earth observation which even satellites from France — another space power to be reckoned with in remote sensing — were not using.

“As a result, India was the first country to use CCD technology — used in digital cameras — in remote sensing. Undoubtedly this helped us evolve some of the finest remote sensing satellites,” says Rajan.

The Indian space establishment also successfully harnessed satellite technology for communication. While most nations were laying cables for telephone networks, India linked them through satellites. How this satellite technology led to the mushrooming of STD booths all over the country is now part of history.

“Risk taking is integral to scientific and technological enterprise,” says Narasimha. He is prepared to believe that when Antrix accepted Devas’s proposal to experiment with mobile multimedia communication, it was done in this spirit.

“It was a great technology in 2005. Now we have multimedia services on mobile phones and iPads, thanks to new generation mobile phone technologies. But they couldn’t envisage then that such a technology would become available so soon. It was a genuine error in judgement.”

Many former Isro scientists say the fall out of the controversy will be felt for long. “If you want to save Isro, drastic revamping is required right from the top management. I said this in a letter to the Prime Minister,” says Nair. The former Isro chairman has publicly accused his successor, K. Radhakrishnan, of pursuing a personal agenda. Radhakrishnan has refused to comment on the controversy.

One of the serious effects of this will be a reluctance among scientists to think out-of-the-box, says K.R. Sridhara Murthi, former chairman of Antrix Corporation and one of those barred. “There will be a tendency to play by the book among Isro scientists. Nobody will be prepared to try out untested technologies. This may seriously mar the growth of the space programme,” he says.

Such a trend may be disastrous for another reason. Isro may end up sacrificing its freedom from bureaucratic tangles. The freedom was once fiercely guarded by its leaders. Today, it’s in danger.

ISRO ILLS

Whopping 33 per cent drop in budget utilisation in 2011-12

Sagging morale among 10,000-strong scientific work force

Repeated failures of home-grown GSLV

Tightening bureaucratic control

Shortage of transponders

MILESTONES

1963 First sounding rocket launched from Thumba

1975 First Indian satellite Aryabhatta launched

1982 First Indian communication satellite Insat-IA launched

1993 First flight of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle

2001 First flight of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle

2008 India’s first lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 launched from Sriharikota